Little League's field of green

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

This being late August, it's time to feel good about America by tuning into the Little League World Series.

You know, getting to watch a bunch of kids play their hearts out, deliver some wonderful and dramatic action and, of course, earn millions and millions for a non-profit and its billion dollar broadcast partner. All the while not being paid a penny, especially the many 11- and 12-year-olds from poor and developing countries.

It really makes you feel good about things when Little League Baseball Inc. (and its $70 million in assets) teams up with ESPN/ABC (Disney) to milk a cash cow courtesy of unpaid preteens from Mexico to Minnesota.

Which is why, in the spirit of the American way, anytime these boys (or girls in softball) appear on national television they should be cut in on the action.

Each young player should receive $1,000 per TV game even if it, at first glance, seems to run against everything this slice of Americana is supposed to be about.

No one has done a better job marketing its aw-shucks purity than the Little League. This is about kids, neighborhoods, sportsmanship, teamwork, mom and apple pie. And, for the most part, it's true. The Little League is a great thing for a great number of people.

To the viewing public at home, the World Series is a bit of wholesome comity in the middle of a churning sea of dog fighting and contract holdouts. Watching these boys compete for the sake of competition is magical theatre, which is exactly why people (especially the young viewers that advertisers covet) watch.

As a result, there is nothing little about the business of the Little League World Series. Corporations don't see it as some simple pursuit. To them it is no different than any other professional sporting event or hot television program. This is a place to make money. Lots of money.

They may have first sold America on the joy of a game being played by unpaid kids, but then they went out and sold a lot of advertising. Like college bowl games, the Series even has a title sponsor in Kellogg's, just one example of how broadcast rights, corporate sponsorships, stadium advertisings and ancillary income have skyrocketed in recent years.

Profits for the non-profit Little League Baseball, Inc. of Williamsport, Pa. shot up 89 percent ($3.4 million from $1.8 million) last year, according to its most recent federal 990 tax return. This came on revenue of $21.4 million (including over $4 million in returns on investment) giving LLB an impressive 15.7-percent margin.

Making money is not new for LLB, Inc. At the end of its fiscal year, Sept. 2006, it reported $70.4 million in cash reserves and assets on hand, according to documents.

If LLB wanted, it could make even more. In the spirit of community, it never charges admission to Lamade Field. And it appears to be conservatively run, relying heavily on volunteers and paying CEO Stephen Keener $228,000 in total compensation, which is reasonable considering the scope of the job.

LLB, which has no plans to take this suggestion and start paying players who appear on television, says the money the World Series generates helps lower costs and provides services (background checks, coaching resources) to teams throughout the organization.

"Rather than singling out the players who are fortunate enough to be at a World Series, the revenue from television and other sources is used to benefit all Little Leaguers," spokesman Lance Van Auken said.

While that's true, there is enough money on hand to also take care of those "fortunate" kids who now star in the dozens of hours of programming for ESPN/ABC.

For television execs, the LLWS is just a show, no different than Major League Baseball, "Pardon the Interruption," NASCAR or "Desperate Housewives."

ESPN/ABC doesn't show the games for its health. Understandably, anything that gets on the network is done for business purposes. If it didn't draw sufficient ratings to sell the advertising to turn a profit, ESPN wouldn't show it. This is cheap and profitable summer programming.

ESPN does all it can to increase ratings and future earnings. It relentlessly promotes the broadcasts and journalistically even pretends game coverage is actually worthy of prime national coverage on "SportsCenter" and its website.

For them, it's show business, another bit of entertainment for the Entertainment Sports Programming Network. So why pretend it is something else for the ones doing the actual entertaining?

It isn't intellectually honest to call it amateur athletics if everyone but the participants are making money. Someone is profiting. That's a fact.

And since we already pay adults to play a kid's game, who not pay the kids for playing it, too?

Some argue that it is absurd and even dangerous to start paying children to do something they gladly do for free. After all, you can't put a price on experiencing a boyhood dream come true. But all over the country, young people eagerly perform in high school musicals, which isn't the same as "High School Musical." Disney wouldn't even think of not paying those actors.

Others believe that bringing money in would invite corruption, but let's face it: There has long been cheating in Little League, from doctoring birth certificates to playing out-of-district ringers.

While the NCAA gets away with not paying its athletes, at least it offers a college scholarship, room, board, training and so forth. The Little Leaguers who appear on TV get little more than an orange slice and a free trip to Pennsylvania.

Then there is fear of the NCAA's repressive rules – take money now and lose a potential scholarship later. "Any direct payments to World Series participants would likely make them professional athletes, and as such, ineligible for certain sports opportunities as they grow older," Van Auken noted.

But that's the tail wagging the dog. Why does the NCAA get to be the moral authority here? In reality, the Association might bend on something like this, particularly if there is public pressure.

Even so, how do you explain it to the foreigners who care little about the NCAA?

If LLB paid each player $1,000 for every appearance on television, it would cost just $1.3 million for the entire series (15 players per team in 45 TV games). That's less than 40 percent of the profits, leaving plenty for the organization.

Do you think leaving Williamsport with between $3,000 and $6,000 might mean something to a family from, say, Venezuela, where according to the World Bank the per capita income is $4,820? How about Mexico? Or just middle-class America, where parents are often financially strapped paying for this "amateur" sport?

If you're so worried about corrupting kids with money, then for the Americans put it in a college fund or a savings account that can't be released until they are 18. The foreign teams can do as they choose.

While nothing is likely to happen, it doesn't mean it shouldn't. It's these 11-year-olds' work, their talents, we are watching, ESPN is selling and Little League Baseball is socking away millions on.

We can call it a game and claim it is just the innocence of youth, but it's really just the naivete of a distracted work force that hasn't noticed its money flying right into someone else's account.

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